My Survival Guide For Teaching: Find Moments of “Unprofessional” Bliss
It was early December, 2005. I was in Vienna for a two full days of training for the International Baccalaureate program, which I was teaching at The International School of Lausanne in Switzerland. I remember a very specific moment where we were marking IB exam papers, and matching them up to the actual score they got from “seasoned” examiners. I gave a score of 2.5 out of 4 on one question. I remember the person leading the workshop explaining to me why I shouldn’t have given that extra half grade in that question.
I knew right then I wasn’t cut out for this nonsense. I loved teaching some of the IB material, but this hair-splitting of marks was attacking my principles of grading/assessment.
After the lunch break, I found a understanding soul from Croatia, who sat at the back, to ditch the last session and walk around Vienna and the nine Christmas markets. We walked around for about 5 hours, carrying ample supply of mulled wine to warm the senses even more.
Another decision by Sunil to be filed under “Best Decision Ever”.
What I did was obviously unprofessional. It wasn’t my first time. It wasn’t going to be my last. Luckily, my greatest influence as a math educator, Peter Harrison, was equally as indignant to the embarrassing minefield of grades/examinations as I was. Being British, he had something to say on the matter of formal examinations. You can find his responses scattered around Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.
Little did I know, when I started my career, I was going to be a Picasso in this philosophy. And, in the field of education, I had to have every pencil and brush with me, just to keep my sanity.
More importantly, to provide a safe haven of learning for my students and protect them from the bureaucratic acid rain that would wanted to fall on them. Part of that rain was the mathematically and philosophically challenged idea of assessment. The fact that almost all assessment outlines end with base 10 percentages, should give a big clue that we are just making stuff up.
8 months later, with about 70 to 75 percent of the assessment in, we pretend we still don’t know where kids stand — because we issue an final exam piece, which is worth a disproportionate remainder of the 100%(8 months for most of it and 2 hours for the remaining). And, it’s not the final summation piece is anything but a K-Tel Greatest Hits of the past tests. But, that’s not why we give exams. We give them because they will be writing them after high school. You know, students need practice to be stressed out over illogically constructed grading practices.
My 20 year teaching would have been a lot shorter if I didn’t breach the professional obligations to the school/system. It was actually pretty easy. I only gave fucks about the students.
Most final exam papers, I didn’t even mark. Most students marks would go south. If it looked like the exam would boost the mark, I would mark it. Students who were going for academic awards/scholarships/etc., I would mark. The rest, just got the mark they got before going into the exam.
And, in specific situations, they just got the mark that they needed — arbitrarily constructed as well — for their program. Case in point, the story that went viral in 48 hours.
The student, in the letter, I remember well. I actually taught his younger brother as well. We talked baseball a lot. He in fact got a baseball scholarship. However, that would been all denied if I recorded the mark that was the output at the end. Abstract numbers that mean nothing. They don’t speak to a potential and they don’t speak to a needed humanity.
His poor exam mark only reflected that he had a bad day. We all have bad days.
Doing stuff like that. Showing YouTube videos just to laugh in class. Allowing ipods in the classroom(they were banned initially at the International School I was teaching at in Switzerland — I wrote a 6 page letter to the Director who I greatly admire for changing that). There often wasn’t a lot of structure in my class. My first order of business was to create disarming environments so I could get to the know the students. Math was secondary. Ironically, by putting it “second”, students grew more attracted to it — because they felt safe and seen.
When I left Switzerland after one year — my wife at the time, got pregnant with our first child(she was told she could never have kids) — I collected a scrapbook of memories/notes from students. I am only sharing ones that support my students first/everything second philosophy that washed over my entire career.
I actually didn’t do anything special. That’s the ironic part. Being human and compassionate is something we can all do. Knowing your students, seeing your students, and loving your students doesn’t need professional development. However, one will have to be prepared to be maybe be seen in an unfavorable light by administration and some peers.
And yet, without these moments of throwing the static and inert duties of a teacher into the waste bucket, our students will most likely never see their own potentials. As well, your own deep sense of justice will be compromised.
You will also be unhappy, or have some inexplicable emptiness.
My teaching career was a strange dance. I have zero regrets because I gave zero fucks about the stuff that didn’t matter and never mattered. I just wanted to teach students that mathematics can only be important if I recognize that you are important.
Validation is now being returned by the universe…:)